Preventing truck terrorism: The importance of comprehensive customer screening in lease and rental operations

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Updated Jan 29, 2021

preventing truck terrorism, firefighters huddled behind caution tapeIn July 2016 in Nice, France, a man behind the wheel of a medium-duty box truck intentionally drove his vehicle through a roadside barrier onto a crowded public promenade during the city’s Bastille Day celebration, killing 86 people and injuring nearly 500. Five months later a similar attack occurred in Berlin, where a dozen people were killed and 56 were injured by another truck purposely driven into a crowd at a Christmas market.

These truck-based tragedies reached U.S. soil in 2017 when a man driving a rented pickup intentionally crashed onto a New York City bike path on Halloween — killing eight and injuring 11 others. (A rented truck also was used during the 1993 World Trade Center bombing).

While the tragedies themselves were not directly connected, law enforcement in the three communities ultimately determined each to be terrorist actions perpetrated by individuals with ties to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (also known as ISIL or ISIS). The tragedies shook the world, demonstrating not only ISIL’s expanding impact in the West, but also by spotlighting the horror of vehicular terrorism.

In the years since these attacks, trucking companies and the leasing and rental community — segments of the transportation industry that always have fought to combat vehicular misuse — have further dedicated their efforts and resources toward the development of stringent background checks and proactive best practices for information sharing to better identify potentially dangerous drivers and reduce the likelihood of any future attacks.

While there’s no way to eliminate all risk of vehicular terrorism, Truck Renting and Leasing Association (TRALA) President and CEO Jake Jacoby says his organization has developed a strong relationship with the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration and its automotive counterparts at the American Car Rental Association (ACRA) to ensure any potential information that can be used by its member companies to combat vehicular terrorism is made available to the industry at large.

Jacoby says the collaboration is one of the industry’s strongest accomplishments. The fear of another New York- or European-style attack looms over transportation at all times but the industry isn’t fighting against that anxiety alone. Every business and organization is on the same page.

Flowers laid on a beach promenade in Nice, France, after 86 people were killed in a truck ramming attack in 2016.Flowers laid on a beach promenade in Nice, France, after 86 people were killed in a truck ramming attack in 2016.

“I think the relationship we have with law enforcement and the cooperative manner in which we all work together is a great example of how much good work can be done when everyone is on the same page,” says Jacoby. “We know we can’t stop any attack from anywhere, that’s likely not possible, but it is our goal to stop as many as we can and I believe our relationships [enable] us to do that.”

NationaLease President Dean Vicha agrees. “We may all compete and fight hard in business, but the unification of our industry when it comes to keeping people safe is unprecedented,” he says.

Jacoby says TRALA’s strong relationship with federal authorities is imperative. Hijacking a vehicle for terrorism will always be a risk, but in the case of the aforementioned truck ramming attacks, two of the three vehicles were legally rented before being used for violence.

“That’s the biggest threat from our perspective, consumer rentals,” says Jacoby. “With most leases the background checks are pretty extensive.”

Motivated by the attack in New York, Jacoby says TRALA and ACRA assisted federal authorities in 2018 to develop a comprehensive educational video designed to inform lease and rental (L&R) businesses about how to spot and interact with a suspicious customer.

According to the video, customers failing to provide adequate documentation, attempting to pay in an unorthodox manner and/or unable to answer basic questions regarding their rental needs should arouse suspicion for rental counter associates. Regarding documentation, authorities note temporary driver’s licenses are concerning because they are often paper and easier to counterfeit than conventional cards. As for payment, because rental businesses require a credit card on file to process an order, any customer eager to pay via cash or check or attempting to avoid providing a credit card should raise a red flag.

Federal authorities add while none of these actions are individually unlawful and many may likely be reasonably explained, their occurrence during an attempted rental also “could warrant additional scrutiny of the customer” in accordance with a rental company’s policy and procedures.

As the authorities note in the video, “If you believe there is a strong likelihood that a vehicle will be used to do harm, consult your corporation’s policies for denying the rental and for appropriate notification protocols to corporate security and law enforcement.”

When building such procedures, Vicha says NationaLease advises its members to consult the video and the best practices provided by TRALA. He says NationaLease does not require its members to adhere to a single guideline, though most develop processes similar to what TRALA recommends.

TRALA’s advice is rooted in methodical documentation and communication. Before producing the aforementioned instructional video, TRALA partnered with federal authorities in 2006 to develop a Security Awareness and Self-Assessment Guide that defines how trucks are used for terrorism and details many ways independent L&R businesses can deter terrorist actions. In it, TRALA affirms the importance of customer screening to preventing terrorism.

“Final target and weapon selection is usually fluid, and terrorists can be easily dissuaded if small details in their plan prove unreliable,” TRALA writes. “Because of this, frequent changes in work routine by renting and leasing companies can be an important and effective pre-emptive measure.”

The document also features an extensive self-assessment quiz L&R companies are encouraged to complete to determine the quality of their in-house protocols and evaluate if improvements are required.

In an official statement, Penske Truck Rental states its employee security training is based in part on materials and video provided by the FBI and its TRALA participation, and adds the company’s “security officials also regularly meet with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies regarding security measures and best practices.”

Finally, there’s the matter of communication. Jacoby says TRALA distributes security bulletins received from federal agencies to its members and requests they reciprocate by informing the association when they encounter suspicious potential customers. Many L&R businesses also curate their own customer watch lists using information provided by the government and industry partners.

The key to safety is cooperation. “You have to be vigilant,” Jacoby says.

The ACRA adds in a statement: “Collaboration between industry and law enforcement is best suited to effectively prevent incidents in ways that do not telegraph what preventive steps are being taken.”

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